– Esteemed Japanese director Keiichi Hara was the special guest of this year’s Animest, and in addition to a retrospective of his work, his latest film was part of the festival’s competition

GoCritic! Review: Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Keiichi Hara

The 18th edition of the Animest International Animation Film Festival celebrated the esteemed work of Japanese anime director Keiichi Hara, a special guest of this year’s edition. His latest release, and adaptation of Mizuki Tsujimura’s eponymous novel, Lonely Castle in the Mirror (2022), was also screened as part of the Feature Film Competition.

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The movie centres on the perspective of its teenage protagonist, wallflower Kokoro Anzai. Her biggest wish, to be noticed and popular like the cool transfer student, Moe Tojo, whom she quickly befriends, accompanies the title sequence. Her own voice-over makes us privy to her thoughts, while the image of an empty desk in a busy classroom acts as the substitute for our hero who does not feel up to attending her first day at Yukishina Junior High School. Bullying turns out to be the main cause of her unease about attending this regular high school, having already harmed the friendship with Moe. In turn, a recurring comforting presence is represented by the alternative school Classroom of the Heart teacher, Mrs. Kitajima.

One afternoon, the mirror in Kokoro’s bedroom starts glistening. Curiosity gets the better of her and she ends up in the fairytale-inspired land of The Lonely Castle in the Mirror.

A little Red Riding Hood-looking girl wearing a wolf mask welcomes her, as well as six other teens who have all stepped through each of their respective mirrors. The Wolf Queen’s guests have an equal chance to get a wish granted, that is, until one of them finds the key to an enchanted secret room. They have the next ten months to visit and roam around the castle as they please, but only between 9 am to 5 pm Japan time, or else they will get eaten by a big bad wolf. The reasons for these seemingly arbitrary rules will be revealed in the final stretch of the film.

Despite the reveal of the magical portals, the plot develops almost entirely without any more fantastical interference. Unlike the animes that count on make-believe driving the plot forward, here it is only a catalyst for cultivating curiosity around all of the characters’ real lives. And so, Aki, Fuka, Kokoro, Subaru, Rion, Masamune and Ureshino meet in a common room that becomes one of several places in which they chill out, share treats, drink tea and play board games. As Kokoro gets more familiar with the group, so does the viewer with her personal life.

For months, the imaginary world is the teenagers’ refuge from reality and some clues are revealed but, all in all, the layered mystery connecting everyone can only be solved through Kokoro gradually becoming someone who can stand up for herself and her new friends – a protector. The film culminates in a tense and supernatural confrontation with destiny and difficult revelations about each person involved, not just about our hero.

The mise-en-scène abounds with well-crafted yet not particularly eye-catching backgrounds, the aesthetically pleasing 2D hand-drawn animation clashing with the digitally rendered castle’s exterior and its ornamental details. For most of the movie, there is no stylistic difference between the atmospheres of the two worlds, which leaves us wondering if one isn’t just an extension of the other. Harumi Fuuki’s fantasy-like orchestral music overemphasises either the sentimental, confrontational or the more playful but still adventurous tone, an aspect which will be perceived differently by cinemagoers, depending on their personal preferences.

Honouring the character-driven approach, Hara’s effective cinematic storytelling highlights the script’s essentially puzzling nature and has the viewer engaged throughout the running time of almost two hours. In fact, it’s the viewer’s attunement to the experience of loneliness that gives appreciating this touching tale a fighting chance, regardless of whether or not you happen to be familiar with the director’s work or even with anime in general.

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